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Columbia mask law extended 60 days again amid coronavirus

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Steve Benjamin late 2019

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin in a 2019 City Council meeting.

The Columbia City Council unanimously extended, for the second time, an emergency ordinance Tuesday requiring wearing masks in commercial businesses amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Columbia initially approved a mask ordinance on June 23. Council then voted to extend the law in early August.

The latest extension approved Tuesday is good for 60 days though November.

Since Columbia first enacted its mask law, a number of neighboring governments have passed similar ordinances. Richland County Council voted on Aug. 31 to extend its own mask ordinance another two months.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has long resisted a statewide mask mandate but has encouraged local governments to pass them if they see fit. There were about 70 local governments that had approved mask laws, covering about half the state.

Meanwhile, public health officials have extolled the value of wearing a mask as COVID-19 drags on. In an Aug. 25 news release, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control noted that "those jurisdictions with mask requirements in place have seen an overall decrease of 43 percent of total cases for the five weeks after the requirements were implemented compared to before the requirements were in place."

Columbia’s mask law requires people to wear them inside of all commercial businesses within the city limits. Violators face fines of $25 for individuals and $100 for businesses. Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins says there have only been 10 mask citations written since June.

The city has even run a social media campaign in an attempt to encourage people to wear face coverings.

Also Tuesday, City Council voted to continue suspending its normal meetings. The council has been meeting virtually, rather than at City Hall, since COVID-19 began to take off in the spring. The order on that also is good for 60 days.

Statewide there have been more than 130,000 cases of COVID-19 and almost 3,000 deaths since March as of Sept. 14. There have been 211 COVID-19 related deaths in Richland County.

The city has been operating a COVID-19 testing center 2204 Lee St., near Five Points, for the last month. There have been more than 2,300 tests administered there, and the positivity rate from that testing site has been 12.3 percent, city Emergency Management Director Harry Tinsley said.

Columbia's municipal court, which has been shuttered for months amid COVID-19, is reopening, Tinsley said. 

"Staff has worked very diligently ... to get ready to do that," Tinsley said of the city court reopening. "They installed a thermal temperature scanner to ensure implementation of our COVID-19 safety procedures and requirements for anyone entering the courthouse."

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